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Hong Kong 香港

“Life in Hong Kong transcends cultural and culinary borders, such that nothing is truly foreign and nothing doesn’t belong.”
Peter Jon Lindberg

Hong Kong, a city whose name was synonymous in my childhood with the far orient and had an aura of mystique had evolved into a city that I could identify with.

My first trip to Hong Kong was by accident, a second leg of a family vacation that coincided with a massive volcanic eruption in the Philippines in 1991. On a family trip to Manila we were marooned of sorts in Tokyo when Mount Pinatubo erupted. After about  week in Tokyo we were at Narita Airport checking in to see if Manila Ninoy Aquino Airport was open. It wasn’t, but there was a flight to Hong Kong taking off in 20 minutes. We got the last four seats on a JAL-747-400 to Hong Kong Kai Tak, the jet bridge had already retracted and they put air-stairs to the back door as drove us from the lounge to plane. Once on board they closed the doors behind us and off we were to HKG.

Why Hong Kong? My father had been to Hong Kong only a few weeks prior as part of preparation for an Operation Smile mission to China. He had made some friends on that trip and he wanted to show Hong Kong to his family. My paternal grandmother was British, at the time Hong Kong was still part of the Realm, for her, it was an opportunity to see a part of the Empire that she had only read about.

We arrived from Tokyo into Kai Tak Airport. Kai Tak is a legendary airport for AvGeeks (Aviation Geeks), now closed, it was Hong Kong’s primary airport until 1998 when operations switched over to the new and current airport: Chek Lap Kok. Kai Tak was known for its hair raising approaches. The landing procedure would require a pilot to approach a mountain as if it were a runway, then switch before hitting the mountain to the true final approach to the runway low over Kowloon and its inhabitants. As an AvGeek, it is a distinction and a badge of honour to have flown in to Kai Tak, something that can no longer be done.

We visited Hong Kong as a family, as an eleven year old kid I can only remember snippets of fleeting moments. Taking the funicular up to Victoria Peak where my mom had the best bread pudding she ever had. Riding the Star Ferry across the bay then gliding over the water in a hydrofoil to Macau. My first ride in a Rolls Royce (and only time since) was with a friend that my dad had met only a few weeks prior, we then went island hopping in his yacht. He had a kid around the same age as me, a hapa like me. While I was playing with him his parents got into an argument, he looked at me and asked me if my parents got into arguments too. The Airport in Manila opened a few days later and took my first and only flight on a Lockheed L-1011 TriStar on Cathay Pacific over a turbulent Philippine Sea.

It would be a full twenty-eight years before I would return to Hong Kong. I was working on several airport projects in China from our company offices in Shanghai in February 2019 and decided to re-visit Hong Kong for a quick weekend. Instead of flying in to Kai Tak which had long since closed and reabsorbed into the city, I landed at Chek Lap Kok far west of the city. This “new” airport opened in 1998 is remains one of the world’s best airports from a passenger perspective and the first designed by starchitect Sir Norman Foster, he would later design Beijing Capital Airport Terminal 3 for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and what would have been Mexico City’s new airport had it not been cancelled.

Twenty-eight years had passed but it all seemed so familiar, so comfortable, not because I had been there before. As a I rationalized it, Hong Kong is an urban reflection of a very similar identity to my own as a hapa. My mother is Asian and Father is European. Like my parents, Hong Kong is a mix of both cultures, mixing parts of each to create its own unique identity. I’ve lived in many cosmopolitan cities but only Hong Kong is as defined as the fusion of two highly distinct cultures merging into one. In a way, it is a teaser of what a China could look like if it were a democracy. I met up with some of my friends who I had met through work, Andy and his partner Brett (a Cathay Pacific Pilot) lived in Hong Kong. Brett like me is a hapa, half Filipino and half Caucasian. I went back to Victoria Peak to grab a picture of Hong Kong Harbor, took a double-decker trolley around town and visited Lamma Island, a remote beach island off the coast of Aberdeen. Along the way back from the ferry we went through a pedestrian overpass that on the weekends becomes a refuge for foreign domestic workers, most of them from the Philippines. With space at an extraordinary premium, this is often the only place they can gather and socialize. They put together cardboard booths and share home made foods to have a taste from home, they will chat on whatsapp with family back home and do each others hair before returning to their six day work week and converted closet bedrooms.

A friend of mine in Berkley had a classmate who returned to Hong Kong to run his family’s restaurant. It was, in true Hong Kong fashion a glorious kitchen with a street facing counter adorned with plastic garden furniture on the street. Don’t let that fool you, a long line of locals told me this was the right place. A little red book written by a small French outlet called Michelin also mentions them. I ordered pretty much everything and talked a little with the chef. I left there fat and happy. The next day I went I had a reservation at Lung King Heen, one of the first Asian restaurants to earn three Michelin stars. Usually a Michelin three star meals is synonymous with having to sell a kidney to afford an appetizer in France. I was relieved that I didn’t have to give up any body part for this meal. I had a dishes whose names can be easily be found on carts in Dim Sums across the city and Chinatowns worldwide. The dishes may share the same names, however eating eating these dishes here at Lung King Heen is like eating them for the first time, as if this was the original and all others were derivations of that dish from this place. It was a quick 48 hour trip but I was hooked and I know I wanted to come back, and soon.

The rest of 2019 unfolded in tragedy for Hong Kong. Watching from afar I saw Hong Kong face the inevitable societal clash in the making since the 1984 Handover agreement signed by Margaret Thatcher and Chinese Communist Paryt (CCP). The original agreement was that only the lease on a part of Hong Kong was to expire in 1997, it was decided that the entirety of the territory would revert back to China at the same time as it would be impractical to divide the territory and return parts of it. Asked afterwards why she signed the agreement with Deng Xiao Ping (the Chinese Premier at the time), Mrs. Thatcher said “He said that the Chinese could walk in and take Hong Kong back later today if they wanted to”.

Decolonization is a noble and natural goal, territories politically dependent on a far away authority should be granted freedom to self-govern. The case of Hong Kong, is somewhat different. In software development, especially open-source software, a fork is where a branch of the project separates from the original project and develops on its own. Depending on development, the projects can remain compatible or have wildly different attributes after several rounds of development. When Quebec was ceded to the British in 1763 after the Seven Years War, Quebec in a way became a fork in terms of French culture from that of the mainland. Both territories have developed along democratic norms taking different routes to get there and both speak French today. Due to the geographic and cultural isolation from Metropolitan France, Quebec’s version of French is slightly different, with their own unique expressions and words, some borrowed from English and some that have become extinct in Metropolitan France but still part of the daily lexicon in Quebec. Likewise for culture, Quebec has its own unique culture, influenced by traditions from Royal France, British Rule, American proximity and being a part of Canada. Today, Quebec is a part of the North American cultural mix and it would make little sense to merge it back with France.

Hong Kong was ceded to the United Kingdom at the end of the Opium Wars in 1842. As it developed, it also adopted the civil and political structure of the United Kingdom including, common law and increasing amounts of self-government, especially in the later years of British Rule under then Governor (1992-1997) Chris Patten. These freedoms and norms were codified in the 1984 handover agreement that China promised to respect at least until 2047 (fifty years after the hand-over). In essence Hong Kong would be its own little de-facto county enjoying its own system economic and political system. This arrangement allowed the UK to leave Hong Kong with its honour intact, having guaranteed the Hong Kong Way of life for at least another 50 years, and allowed China to maintain Hong Kong as an economic and financial powerhouse as an financial doorway to China. Another reason China was keen on keeping Hong Kong operating under its own system was to showcase “One-Country, Two-Systems”. In essence there was only one China, but have different economic and political systems operating within. Using Hong Kong as a showcase for this theory, China would push this as a way to reunite Taiwan into China. In software development terms, the Hong Kong fork, similar in some respects to the Taiwan fork could continue existing and developing independently only under new project ownership.

Fast forward a few years and things have evolved differently than what was advertised. In 1993 the GDP of Hong Kong was larger than a quarter of China’s GDP (26.9%), in 2019 it represented only 2.7%. This was due to the high growth rate of the Chinese economy which grew much faster than that of Hong Kong. Hong Kong allowed China to access capital from foreign investors as it served as a financial hub, connecting western markets to mainland China, Hong Kong was the stable center between two opposing systems. The importance of Hong Kong to the regime in Beijing started to wane as other Chinese mega-cities started developing. Even Shenzhen, a backwater fishing village in the 1970s across the border from Hong Kong has grown into a mega industrial hub at times eclipsing Hong Kong’s economic power.

When the UK signed the Handover agreement in 1984, China was beginning some economic reforms, largely seen and believed to be putting China on a path to liberalization. It was generally believed that by the time 2047 came around, China would have a market based economy and potentially a liberalized political system as well. The though was that China would catch up with Hong Kong. The student uprising in June 1989 in Tienanmen Square Beijing put an end to that theory. Reformist elements in the China Communist Party were purged as a brutal repression of the student uprising unfolded in front of a powerless world.

The resulting reaffirmed social contract in China was that the Communist Party would be the unquestioned and exclusive political power in exchange for the most rapid economic growth of a nation the world has ever seen. The Communist Party has managed to bring over 850 million Chinese out of extreme poverty and has seen an average economic growth of 10% since the early eighties. The standard of living of millions of Chinese has improved, and while the standard of living may reach western levels in some areas of some cities, many parts of the country lag western nations on key development indicators.

If the Communist Party in China is to continue governing, its mandate is built upon maintaining the implicit social contract. Economic forces, environmental issues and foreign pushback are slowing the economic growth China has come to expect. Chinese President Xi Jing Ping has added an addendum to the Social Contract in the form of Nationalism as a backstop for potential economic slowdowns or downturns. This revised China doctrine merges the well being of the Communist Party with that of China. A strengthening of China’s military as well as a land/sea grab from its South East Asian neighbors coupled with an internal campaign of ethnic and cultural homogenization and more assertive integration into the political fold of Hong Kong have become signs of consolidation for CCP power in China.

With a relatively economically weaker Hong Kong, representing a diminishing portion of the economic output of China, Hong Kong’s importance to the CCP is reduced. Having a vibrant and thriving democracy on your doorstep is incompatible with the new Xi Chinese Nationalism and one party rule. The result is a concerted push to merge the Hong Kong into communist China, long before the agreed 2047 date. If this should come to pass, the people of Hong Kong would loose first and foremost their freedoms, their cultural identity and language. Hong Kong would loose its unique ability to be a bridge between east and west, and democracy would continue its slow decline in a region already poor in democracies.

It was in this context that in November 2019 I returned to Hong Kong to better understand first hand the political protests that were taking place. Landing in Hong Kong, I discovered a more muted city, the streets were devoid of people, Chinese mainland tourists that were ubiquitous a few months earlier were very few and far between. I wanted to see and photograph a protest understand the anger from the streets. What I ended up seeing was something that left me with a feeling of deep sadness. A few days before I arrived, a University student named Alex Chow was seen entering a parking structure pursued by Police in Tseung Kwan O, he was in a coma after falling from the third floor to the second floor. He died the day after I arrived. A spontaneous memorial service was to be held that evening in that Parking Structure. I was staying in Wan Chai on Hong Kong island, I walked over to the Star Ferry station and took a ferry to Kowloon. Waited in the queue for a taxi, once in the taxi I told the driver where I was going. He noticed the florescent vest, hard hat, “Press” markings and cameras I had on me. He was concerned for me and asked me to be careful.

Tseung Kwan O is a relatively new development built on reclaimed land (like much of Hong Kong). By Hong Kong standards, it was a little bit of a drive, as it is away from the main arterials of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. That didn’t stop people flowing in like rivers into the parking structure. It was around six o’clock when I got there, and I could notice that there wasn’t one type of person there. A cross-section of all of Hong Kong was there, young, old, students, people getting off from work, pensioners and the odd expat. The People of Hong Kong were there to pay respects to one of their fallen. More and more people continued to flow in, the parking structure was still in use, some cars were slowly creeping past what could easily have been thousands of mourners, and like the red sea they parted so the cars could leave. The mood was extremely somber and heavy, it was difficult for me to stay dry-eyed. Queues formed spontaneously, if this crowd was in the US, it would have been chaos and a probably stampede. The crowd self organized and the line folded on itself continuously as more and more Hong Kong Citizens came. All were unified by a common will, it was as if an ad hoc organization had formed and everyone knew what to do with no one telling them. People had come with boxes full of tealight candles, handed them out and lit them, others came with bottles of water and boxes of disposable masks (to hinder facial recognition) and handed them out or left them out so people could serve themselves. Volunteer medics roamed around in case anyone needed help.

The place where Alex’s body was found was on the second floor under an overlooking ledge on the third floor. The area was filled with flowers, a Lennon wall of post-its from fellow HKers brightened up the walls with florescent messages of hope, despair, sadness, memories, respect and vengeance.

I had seen what I came to see, and I went back to my Hotel with a most heavy heart.

I returned a month and a half later with my parents. Hong Kong was the site of one of our most epic family trips and they had not been back since ’91. We arrived from Manila, and re-discovered parts of the city we all saw together around twenty-seven years earlier. I took my parents to Lung King Heen for a day before new years meal. My father has counted as freinds a lot of chefs, including a few Michelin three star laureates. This was the first time he was trying an Asian Three Star. We all left the table fat and happy. To ring in the new year 2020, I had reserved a space on a traditional Chinese Junk that toured around Hong Kong harbor. At the stroke of midnight fireworks illuminated the sky and we wished everyone a happy, healthy and prosperous 2020.

New years day my parents rested at the Hotel and I went to a protest that was forming at Victoria Park.

The human buildup at the park started shortly before 1300hrs. People mostly dressed in dark  colours or black flowed into the park from all sides. It seemed all of Hong Kong was once again united there. In the field in the middle of the park, a stage was set with keynote speakers. Without knowledge of Cantonese I couldn’t understand any of the words, but I really didn’t need to. The citizens of Hong Kong were here to defend their way of life. Many had both hands in the air, one with all five fingers extended and the other with just the index finger, representing 5 demands, not one less:

  • Complete withdrawal of the extradition bill from the legislative process
  • Retraction of the “riot” characterisation
  • Release and exoneration of arrested protesters
  • Establishment of an independent commission of inquiry into police conduct and use of force during the protests
  • Resignation of Carrie Lam and the implementation of universal suffrage for Legislative Council elections and for the election of the chief executive

Being in the crowd, it was hard to get a perspective of how large and expansive the crowd was. Next to the field there was a snack shop that was closed. Protesters and other media professionals found that the ladder to the roof at the back was easy to access. In true Hong Kong fashion, a queue formed to climb on to the roof. If there is to be a revolution, please form a queue. On top of the roof I was able to observe the full size and scope of this part of the protest. People as far as the eye could see. There were about 20 people on the roof with me, a father and son were holding the black flag symbol of the revolution emblazoned with “Hong Kong, Revolution of our Time”, that’s one way to family bond. After about an hour and half I decided to leave; leaving the park towards the west I ended up following the natural progression of the protest as it too left the park and progressed westward on Hennessy Road (one of the main arterials in Hong Kong) towards Wan Chai. The streets were filled with protesters: workers, students and families; marching for their future.

Walking along, cameras in hand it was again hard to get a view from the ground as to the immensity of the crowd and the moment. I had to find a place to climb, to regain perspective. The double-decker trolley lines had stations in the middle of the streets with reinforced (hopefully) concrete roofs connected to staircases to access pedestrian overpasses. Makeshift ladders made from shipping pallets were erected and journalists were being hoisted to the top of the roof with the help of protesters, all the while thanking us for being there and sharing their stories. Journalists in yellow jackets, emblazoned with “Press” or “Media” were up there shooting images of the crowd which had filled the streets beyond the urban horizon. Local journalists and photographers’ protective equipment was often limited to their own sporting gear as imports of protective equipment into Hong Kong was being curtailed. My own protective equipment came in with me in my suitcases from the US though originally made in China, the irony was not lost upon me.

We were on a concrete island in the middle of a surging river of people. As they flowed by we caught glimpses, images of people, children, the future of Hong Kong holding signs pleading us to stand next to them. British and United States flags waving high proudly, as if shields of democracy, when one usually sees these flags in a foreign protest context they are usually on fire, the change was welcome.

Eventually I climbed down and exited through a side street, I saw a local shop owner had set up a counter the length of his business filled with water bottles for protesters as he stood by. Further down the police was readying to deploy in full tactical gear, later that night they would crack down on the protesters, with every swipe of the baton, a coup against democracy.